1. Home
  2. Global

Great expectations: incoming UN chief urged to make bold reforms

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets his successor, António Guterres at the UN General Assembly (Eskinder Debebe/UN)

Shrewd pragmatist, passionate idealist, astute politician, skilled communicator: António Guterres has received no shortage of praise since navigating the arcane selection process to emerge as the next UN chief.

On 1 January, the former Portuguese prime minister and UN high commissioner for refugees will succeed Ban Ki-moon and become the ninth UN secretary-general, beginning a renewable five-year term. But having talked the talk, can he walk the walk?

He takes on the new role, routinely billed as the most impossible job in the world, with the 70-year-old institution facing serious reputation problems, the model of multilateralism on the rocks, and humanitarian crises raging from Syria and Iraq to South Sudan and northern Nigeria.

But experienced observers and former senior UN figures told IRIN he needs to look inwards and address some key systemic problems at the UN’s core if he wants to make real headway.

“You can barely pick up a stone at the UN without seeing a need for reform under it,” commented Mark Malloch-Brown, who served as former secretary-general Kofi Annan’s deputy in 2006.

Besides addressing the need for a more efficient, merit-based recruitment process, there is what Malloch-Brown describes as the UN’s “broken accountability system”.

“There are endless evaluation and audit bodies, but they don’t really grip the issues they should be gripping, and they’re certainly not auditing for outcomes,” he told IRIN. “The whole organisation, both in its management and accountability systems, needs to be put on a management-for-results basis.”

The Kompass case

Anders Kompass, a former field operations director at the UN’s human rights agency, OHCHR, blew the whistle on the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic and ultimately resigned over the organisation’s failure to hold its senior officials to account.

He told IRIN he was hopeful that Guterres would take an early stand on the issue by “saying from the beginning that he will ensure the independence of the two key institutions in charge of accountability – OIOS (the Office of Internal Oversight Services) and the Ethics Office.”

He also wants to see Guterres develop a coherent policy to support and defend whistleblowers.

“Accountability also means there have to be consequences when something is wrong, and to date there aren’t any in the UN,” he said.

Some of the incidents that have been most damaging to the UN’s image and credibility in recent years have involved its peacekeeping forces. From the sexual abuses Kompass reported in CAR to the cholera outbreak that peacekeepers brought to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

Malloch-Brown said there was a need to build an “integrated, unified, disciplined UN peacekeeping force that you can mobilise quickly and that understands proper norms... All of that isn’t there in this peacekeeping-on-the-cheap model that’s been forced on the UN.”

The P5 hegemony

How Guterres deals with pressure from powerful member states to influence senior appointments (and everything else) will set the tone for how much independence he enjoys as the UN’s chief executive.

“Governments have used the management committees of the UN as bargaining chambers where they pick over which programmes get extra resources and which don’t,” said Malloch-Brown. “The secretary-general needs freedom to use the resources he’s been allocated to pursue a set of priorities he’s been given, but in his own way.”

The first challenge and test of Guterres’ diplomatic skills will be how he handles making appointments to some of the UN secretariat’s top posts. Those positions have largely gone to nationals from the powerful “P5” states who make up the five permanent members of the Security Council.

For the past decade, for example, three Brits have headed up the UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA; France currently holds peacekeeping; China has held onto the top spot at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs; while UNICEF, the WFP, and the Department of Political Affairs are led by Americans. UN corridor gossip is focused on a potential reshuffle of these top posts amongst the P5. Other member states and civil society will be hoping that Guterres will find a way to take a more meritocratic approach to appointments.

I think there’ll be a challenge from the rest of the membership for a fairer distribution [of UN leadership positions] particularly at a time when they consider the [15-member] Security Council membership not to be representative,” said Malloch-Brown.

Restoring the faith

Unilateral or ad-hoc coalition approaches to both the refugee crisis and Syria have done much to erode respect for the international laws and conventions governing refugees and the conduct of war. Nan Buzard, executive director of the Geneva-based International Council of Voluntary Agencies, argued that one of Guterres’ most pressing priorities should be promoting a return to the proper application of those laws.

“International law can’t solve all problems, but the ways in which it’s been undermined is probably the most serious erosion [of member states’ responsibilities] we’re facing,” she told IRIN.

Malloch-Brown believes the former Portuguese politician has what it takes to be a very good secretary-general but acknowledged the scale of the task ahead.

“A lot of the current difficulties come, frankly, from having a weak secretary-general who isn’t forceful enough on the political mediation front and who isn’t willing to be assertive enough on the humanitarian,” he said.

Assertiveness is not generally perceived to be one of Ban’s fortes, particularly when it has come to persuading Security Council member states to set aside geopolitics and prioritise the humanitarian situation in Syria.

“One of Guterres’ strong points is that he has a sensitive appreciation of how to be assertive without being offensive,” observed Jeff Crisp, former head of policy and evaluation at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, under Guterres.

Considering how much more “impossible” the job has become in 2016, the amount of confidence and hope that many in the humanitarian community are placing in Guterres is impressive. But is it misplaced?

“There’ve been eight secretary-generals; two did it well – Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjöld,” said Malloch-Brown. “It’s a lot easier to fail.”


Share this article
Join the discussion

Help us be the transformation we’d like to see in the news industry

The current journalistic model is broken: Audiences are demanding that the hierarchical, elite-led system of news-gathering and presentation be dismantled in favour of a more inclusive and holistic model based on more equitable access to information and more nuanced and diverse narratives.

The business model is also broken, with many media going bankrupt during the pandemic – despite their information being more valuable than ever – because of a dependence on advertisers. 

Finally, exploitative and extractive practices have long been commonplace in media and other businesses.

We think there is a better way. We want to build something different.

Our new five-year strategy outlines how we will do so. It is an ambitious vision to become a transformative newsroom – and one that we need your support to achieve.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian by making a regular contribution to our work - and help us deliver on our new strategy.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.